How to Stop Your Child From Thumb Sucking

Breaking the habit itsn't easy, but it can be done

How to stop thumb sucking
It can be frustrating when a child sucks his thumb, but there are ways to discourage this very common habit.. Getty images

My 3-year-old still sucks her thumb. Is that OK?

For infants, sucking is a natural instinct. It offers them comfort and security, two feelings that can stay with a child as they get older. When a young child feels stress for any reason or is tired, sucking his or her thumb can help them to relax, and maybe even fall asleep (which is why many kids only suck their thumbs at night or during nap time).

When a baby sucks his or her thumb, it's cute. When a preschooler does it, well, maybe not so much. While thumb sucking can provide young children comfort, it is a habit that needs to stop eventually. According to the American Dental Association, "Prolonged thumb sucking may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and the alignment of teeth. It also can cause changes in the roof of the mouth."

The good news is that most kids stop thumb sucking on their own between the ages of 2 and 4, whether because they simply feel like stopping or perhaps they are feeling peer pressure from other children. Still, if your dentist or pediatrician has expressed concern, or if you'd like to try to break your child of this habit, there are things you can do.

The key to helping a child to stop sucking their thumb is to be gentle and patient. Because thumb sucking offers kids such comfort, stopping it abruptly or applying a lot of pressure to stop can cause a child stress, and make them want to suck their thumb more.

You don't want your child to view having to stop sucking their thumb as punishment. Here's how to get started:

Talk to your child. A child who is ready to stop sucking their thumb is old enough to understand why this is a habit that they need to break. Without scaring your child, talk about how thumb sucking could hurt their teeth.

Or, ask the dentist or pediatrician to explain why this is something they need to stop to do. While talking to your child alone won't stop the habit entirely, it will give them some of idea of why they need to stop.

Offer up alternatives. Often a child who sucks their thumb has no idea that they are even doing it. So when you notice your child sucking his or her thumb, give her something else to do with her hands, such as play with a toy or a book. You could also suggest that your child do something else with her thumb, such as wrapping the other fingers around it, playing with a small ball, or placing a finger puppet on it. Some parents offer a snack as alternative, which is ok sometimes, but you don't want your child to start looking to food as something that offers that comfort. That could cause problems down the line.

Figure out what the trigger is. Is there a certain time of day that your child always sucks his or her thumb, for example when she watches television? Or when something happens, it causes your child to put his or her thumb in their mouth?

Identifying when your child consistently starts to suck his or her thumb can help you to prevent it.

Wait it out. Unless the pediatrician or dentist have identified problems with your child's teeth, it might make sense to let the thumb sucking stop on its own, because it will. Nagging your child or punishing him or her for sucking their thumb will just cause undue stress, especially because they probably don't even realize they are doing it most of the time.

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